Mercy Bay (Canada) : Underwater treasure trove


Underwater treasure trove

Researchers confident wreck of ship that sank in 1854 contains hundreds of thousands of relics

Randy Boswell

Source -


A series of dives last month to the rediscovered Arctic Ocean wreck of HMS Investigator has revealed glimpses of what Parks Canada archeologists believe to be an unprecedented "treasure" of historical artifacts preserved in silt below the deck of the sunken 19th-century British ship, Postmedia News has learned.

The July expedition to the vessel's resting place in Mercy Bay, a frigid patch of water off the shore of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, saw divers collect a handful of evocative relics - including a sailor's shoe and a largely intact rifle - that lay "in plain sight" and were at risk of disappearing in the seabed sludge.

But their key finding was confirming the likelihood that "thousands" of other objects - scientific specimens, crewmen's personal belongings, architectural fixtures, a stash of vintage booze in the ship's "spirits room" - have remained entombed and protected in the Royal Navy vessel since it became trapped in ice, was abandoned and then sank during a failed search for the lost Franklin Expedition in the early 1850s.

"We were blessed with really exceptional weather and very, very cooperative ice conditions," Ryan Harris, a Parks Canada underwater archeologist, told Postmedia News. "There's a very high level of siltation inside the hold and that actually bodes quite well for preservation of what will probably amount to thousands upon thousands - or hundreds of thousands - of artifacts that are likely inside the vessel."

He said the ship itself is in remarkably good condition and described the "surreal" experience of seeing a ship so rich in history coming into view with each dive.

The Investigator, captained by Irish-born Robert McClure, had left a British port in 1850 to join what had become a desperate search for the lost ships and missing 129 men from Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

McClure entered the Arctic from the Pacific but was forced to leave the ship when it became locked in ice at Mercy Bay in 1853. He ordered the creation of a cache of supplies on the nearby shore of Banks Island, then led his men on a sledge journey across the sea ice to their rescue by another British ship at Melville Island.

The crew's eastward route back to Britain marked the first recorded transit of the Northwest Passage - a combined voyage by ship and sledge that won McClure everlasting fame despite his failure to find Franklin and the loss of the Investigator, which sank in 1854.

Last summer, Harris and his Parks Canada colleagues became the first people to set eyes on the Investigator in 156 years and earned international acclaim for the feat.

But this year's dives offered the first close look at the 36-metre-long ship, which Harris said appears to have held up well despite being submerged for more than a century-and-a-half and suffering regular grindings from the seasonal ebb and flow of sea ice in Mercy Bay.

Key to that preservation, said Harris, was the copper cladding on the hull of the Investigator that was applied to protect all Royal Navy vessels - including the Erebus and Terror - bound for ice-choked Arctic waters in Canada.

A metre-wide section of the copper shield at risk of being shorn off the ship by an iceberg was also detached and recovered by the team. It will be added to a growing collection of metal artifacts found throughout the Arctic that came from stranded British ships and were often salvaged by 19th-century Inuit and fashioned into tools and important trade goods.

That dynamic was also evident in fresh discoveries made last month on the shore near the wreck, where "McClure's Cache" and surrounding areas of Banks Island were reexamined by a Parks Canada research team headed by land archeologist Henry Carey.

They found further evidence that the tin cans, tools, barrels and other objects stored on land by the Investigator's crew were eventually salvaged by Inuit for use in hunting, cooking and trade.

Carey expressed awe at the "tremendous distances that the material from the HMS Investigator travelled through the Inuit trade routes and the ingenious ways that material was incorporated into Inuit life."

For example, he said, metal from McClure's Cache was eventually fashioned by a crafty Inuk into the blades of a pair of scissors with bone handles - a poignant blending of European and aboriginal material culture.

But the researchers believe local Inuit did not gain access to the ice-locked Investigator before it sank, a further reason to believe much of the ship's original contents will be recoverable in the coming years.

The latest finds at and around the site of the Investigator wreck are fuelling optimism that a Parks Canada-led search later this month - far to the east in the central Arctic archipelago - will finally result in the discovery of the Franklin ships that McClure and other would-be rescuers never found.